Remembering Walter: friend and story keeper

By The Reverend Michael Coren

My dear friend Walter died in the second week of Advent. Kind, humble, clever Walter Hooper had entered a nursing home some months earlier and then fell victim to the dark devil of COVID-19. He was 89-years-old, and right up until his last year had been active and busy. As a young man he had worked as secretary to the great C.S. Lewis, during the last year of Lewis’s life. As such he had become one of the final conduits for the author of the Narnia books, Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, and so many others, whose life was dramatized in the play and movie Shadowlands.

The last time I saw Walter in Oxford, England he said he had a gift for me, a book. I asked him to sign it, but he said almost apologetically, “Michael, I can no longer write.” I asked him what he meant. “I can no longer hold the pen.” My heart broke. The gift he had used for more than five decades, the written word, was now denied him.

He was born in North Carolina in 1931, studied in Britain, and had written to Lewis as an admirer. Lewis replied, the two developed a friendship, and Walter became his private secretary. After Lewis’s death in 1963 Walter went on to become a literary advisor to his estate, an editor of Lewis’s letters and papers, and a frequent speaker at conferences on the legacy of perhaps the finest communicator of the Christian message in modern times.

Walter also knew J.R.R. Tolkien, who lived until 1973, and spoke and wrote of the friendship between Lewis and the author of The Lord of the Rings. Every time I went to see him, I’d ask for more anecdotes, like some glutton never full, and he wouldn’t refuse. He once said to me, “I know that when people visit me from America, Australia, Japan, anywhere, what they really want to know is what was Lewis like.” A pause. “And that’s okay, that’s okay.”

In other words, he was aware that he was a point of contact for one long gone and sought after for someone else. But his invincible humility allowed that to flourish, and he embraced it as vocation. Yet I’ll always remember his delight when playing with our children, and I can’t help thinking it was partly because they had no motive other than fun, and they were with “Mr. Hooper” rather than a friend of another.

We spoke of Lewis’s fondness for beer and tea, his teasing of Walter over his use of American English, the decline he experienced after the death of his wife Joy, his indifference to worldly success, and of course his faith. “Not sure what he’d think of some of these modern Christians” said Walter once over an evening meal at the Trout Inn in Oxford. “They sometimes quote him but I’m not sure if they understand him.” And, “he was so confident in Christ that it sometimes put me to shame. His was the faith of Peter and Paul.”

Then there was the story of Lewis, a devoted member of the Church of England, attending his local church. He would always leave just as the blessing was delivered, eager to avoid attention. On one occasion he got to the old, heavy door to find it accidentally locked, and made such a noise trying to open it that the entire congregation turned in silence to look at him. “He was red-faced most of the time” said Walter, “but that day shades of purple began to emerge.”

It’s painful when a friend departs, leaving an empty space in the familiar map of affection and community. It’s strange and jarring, and of course just sad. It reminds us of our own mortality, and of how relatively small is the slice of time we are given. But Walter made the world a better place, influenced countless people, and helped keep alight the flame of a man he revered, and who has also influenced me more than I can say.

No more journeys to that beautiful apartment in Woodstock Close, no more pub lunches, no more sparkling smiles as another story was told. I’ll pray for him but most of all I’ll thank him, and I know I’ll be one of many. His legacy is the love we have, and that’s not bad at all. Cheers my friend. Until we meet again.